, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 400–416 | Cite as

The Origins of Extreme Economic Inequality: An Archaeologist’s Take on a Contemporary Controversy

  • Sarah KurnickEmail author


In 1754, the Academy of Dijon sponsored a contest for the best examination of the origins of human inequality. Although not the winning entry, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Basis of Inequality among Men remains the most widely read and influential submission. This article uses archaeological data unavailable in the eighteenth century to address Rousseau’s questions anew—questions still of critical importance. Are humans naturally prone to extreme economic inequality? If not, when, how, and why did such inequality arise? And, did drastic imbalances in wealth benefit all members of early societies or only a few?

Key Words

Inequality Economic Disparities Public Archaeology Action Archaeology 


En 1754, l’académie de Dijon avait parrainé le concours du meilleur examen de l’origine de l’inégalité humaine. Bien qu’il n’en fût pas le gagnant, le Discours de Rousseau sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes reste la présentation la plus lue et la plus influente. Cet article utilise les données archéologiques indisponibles au XVIIIe siècle pour traiter à nouveau des questions de Rousseau, questions qui sont toujours d’une importance cruciale. Les humains sont-ils naturellement exposés à une inégalité économique extrême ? Si non, quand, comment et pourquoi ces inégalités sont-elles apparues ? Et de forts déséquilibres de richesses bénéficiaient-ils à tous les membres des sociétés anciennes ou à quelques-uns seulement ?


En 1754, la Academia de Dijon patrocinó un certamen sobre el mejor análisis de los orígenes de la desigualdad humana. Aunque no fue ganador, el Discurso sobre el origen de la desigualdad entre los hombres, de Rousseau, sigue siendo el documento más influyente y más leído. El presente artículo utiliza datos arqueológicos no disponibles en el siglo XVIII para abordar las preguntas de Rousseau, de nuevo - preguntas que siguen siendo de importancia crítica. ¿Somos los humanos propensos de manera natural a una desigualdad económica extrema? Si no es así, ¿cuándo, cómo, y por qué surgió dicha desigualdad? Y, ¿los drásticos desequilibrios en riqueza beneficiaron a todos los miembros de la primeras sociedades o sólo a algunos?



I would like to thank the University of Colorado Boulder and the Gerda Henkel Foundation for their generous support of my research. I would also like to thank Richard M. Leventhal and Jeremy A. Sabloff for their incisive comments on earlier drafts of the article.


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Copyright information

© World Archaeological Congress 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA

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